Veterans Face Tough Transition Into College Life
By Kelsey Nunn and Alison Parker
Courtesy of The Breeze
Veterans returning to school have a different kind of battle to face: the transition to college life.
Yet there are several group efforts at JMU trying to make the transition a little easier.
Less than two percent of the American population has served in the post-9/11 military, and there’s a great divide between the military and the civilian world, according to JMU’s Student Veteran Association.
Congress approved the post-9/11 GI Bill in 2009 to help veterans pay for college. It created an influx of returning veterans to campuses.
There are more than 75 veterans currently at JMU using the bill’s benefits, according to JMU’s GI bill coordinator, Trudy Ham.
Ham is also the Office of the Registrar’s veteran affairs certifying official. She helps veterans with general tasks such as transfering credit evaluation and major/minor changes.
“Our services also include requesting veteran affairs educational benefits and other military benefits processing,” Ham said.
The Registrar also sponsors the SVA, which encourages advocacy, networking, social support and community service and awareness.
“The club can function as a collective voice for veterans at JMU,” Ham said.
Lauren Zapf, a 30-year-old graduate student in JMU’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program, is a member of the Student Veterans Association. She’s a 2003 graduate of the US Naval Academy and was a naval officer for six years.
She wrote in an email that the organization is in the beginning stages of development. It currently faces the problem of demographics in the SVA student population.
“Most of us are older and do not live on campus,” Zapf said. “Hence, we have many other situations occurring, not only on campus, but at home, that demand our time.”
Zapf added that there’s still hope for the organization to grow and thrive.
“With the incentives of the post-9/11 GI Bill, more and more veterans will start enrolling as full-time undergraduate students,” she said.
She has faced her own challenges with the university and needed the organization’s support. Her last semester on campus was spring 2011, and she was searching for graduate assistantship in the psychology department as well as others.
“My application was denied by a few offices,” she said. “When I called one office in particular to find out how I could improve my résumé to make it more appealing, the representative stated that [the department was] looking for more leadership experience.”
Zapf later found out that particular department hired a senior undergraduate at that time.
“This incident really upset me,” Zapf said. “It wasn’t the fact that I was denied this opportunity, but the fact that I was told I didn’t have the leadership experience they were looking for, after supervising up to 20 sailors on two deployments to the Persian Gulf.”
Even though Zapf had already finished her undergraduate degree, her adjustment was still a shock.
“For me, I found that the divide between me and my classmates was vast at the beginning of my graduate program,” she said. “It was really difficult to try to explain to my classmates what I did in the Navy.”
Zapf struggled to relate to her classmates, but she began to share common experiences with them.
“This gulf slowly dissipated,” Zapf said. “I had to open my mind to their experiences, as they opened theirs to mine.”
Ham also understands the double life many veterans may be forced to live.
“Some veterans may have full-time jobs and are either taking online classes or physically sitting in the classrooms,” Ham said. “Some veterans may have disabilities or injuries. Some veterans may be married, and some have children.”
David Onestak, the director of Varner House, agrees veterans are coming from military life where power levels and social conduct are completely different. Varner House is another resource to help veterans identify challenges and create strategies to address and resolve them.
Veterans coming back to civilian life can be dealing with psychological issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Onestak.
“If you have issues as a result of deployment, you have to declare any problems when being discharged,” said Josh Woods, 22, a freshman and veteran Marine.
When going through the process to become honorably discharged, Woods said he went through a psychological evaluation. During this, a veteran may be diagnosed for PTSD or prescribed medication by Virginia Veteran Affairs.
Although his overall deployment experience was positive, Woods knew others who couldn’t handle the stress.
“I had a roommate who wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD but who had bouts of depression,” Woods said.
Those who support student veterans recognize the seriousness of the condition.
“These sorts of problems are taken very seriously by commanders,” Woods said. “You don’t want to make someone worse by keeping them deployed when they are not well.”
In 2008, the Center for Military Health Policy Research published a study on the prevalence of PTSD in a sample of 1,938 people who had been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. Almost 270 veterans exhibited PTSD symptoms.
Though Varner House can be a starting ground for those with PTSD, it has limitations. Onestak said the facility doesn’t deal with diagnosis treatment.
Still, Onestak encourages more veterans to enroll.
“They are welcomed, and people have the opportunity to talk to them about their experiences, so we can all learn and support one another,” Onestak said.